Profile: José M. Torres
Reinventing the dual-language program.
In 2011, no superintendent in the country makes a broad decision without checking student data. So it's no surprise that when School District U-46 superintendent José M. Torres wanted to overhaul his suburban Chicago district's bilingual education program, he did just that. But Torres's analysis went much deeper-deeper than his stint as a regional administrator for 25 schools on Chicago's South Side, deeper than his work at the Broad Superintendents Academy. He went all the way back to his own education, drawing on his experience of moving from Puerto Rico to New York in fifth grade and not knowing more than a few words of English.
"I was pulled out of a class I did understand [in Spanish] to go to a class I didn't understand [in English]," he remembers.
With his gut and spreadsheets in agreement, Torres plunged into a new approach to bilingual education that, one way or another, is sure to catch the attention of others. "We need to do it right, or else we'll be the case study for, ‘Oh, that won't work.'"
Q: You started at the district right before the economy collapsed. How did you navigate that while trying to build a positive relationship with parents and staff?
A: I started in July 2008 as an instructional superintendent. In October 2008, the bottom fell out financially. Immediately, the question became: How do I move academic achievement forward in an era of diminishing resources? We accomplished this by making hard decisions early on.
Two to three years ago, we handed out 5,000 pink slips to full-time and part-time employees. More than 700 teachers were pink-slipped. After seniority and bumping, 300 to 400 never came back. While some saw the district as being financially irresponsible, we got smart about our communication. Despite cutting millions, we reduced our budget just $900 per student, compared to Chicago, which cut $1,200 per student. We communicated the reductions in a way people understood. We still have music and phys ed and our signature academy and gifted programs.
Q: What is the new bilingual model you are trying?
A: We transitioned all our bilingual programs to a dual-language model. Our previous goal with bilingual students had been to teach them English as quickly as possible and get them out of the program. We realized we want bilingual, bicultural, bi-literate students, and the best way to do that was through dual language. In our program, we teach them 80 percent in Spanish in kindergarten, 20 percent in English. By third grade it's 50-50, and the program continues until eighth grade. We don't exit our students.
We started doing this in one school with only Spanish students. The plan was to scale the program up to more schools, but we decided to move our entire bilingual program to this model [and offer it to English-speaking students as well]. When we consulted David Rogers at Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a nonprofit that helps train teachers in this area, he said, ‘You're crazy. Why would you want to do that?'
We said, ‘We think we can close the achievement gap if we get our students finally anchored in their native language and keep them literate in Spanish and develop language skills in English.' Spanish is a more rigorous language than English, with roots in Latin. Cognates for Spanish are helping [all students] in other areas, such as scientific vocabulary.
Q: Was it hard to get parents to support this change?
A: Middle-class parents are very pleased. They are advocates. It was harder to convince the Hispanic parents. Many of them believed what people said, that the best way to learn English is to forget Spanish. We end our presentations with the saying, ‘You don't have to lose a language to learn a language.'
Q: What have you learned about education and language adoption?
A: We learned that students are much easier to teach if they have strong language skills in their native language. The myth is, adults can't learn languages, but that's not true. You already know how to learn and read. We don't want them to throw away their knowledge. This can give Hispanic students confidence. We hope to look at other languages once we get this going.
Q: Tell me how you are trying to close the achievement gap in your district.
A: Our students look like they're doing well. By eighth grade, the gap seems to be closing, using the state tests. But in 11th grade, we use the ACT, a college entrance exam. The achievement gap goes up to 35 to 40 points. The Illinois test is such a low bar, it looks like we're closing the achievement gap, then falling backwards, but we're not. We created a five-year plan. It lays out 12 to 13 benchmarks and targets that are very aggressive. Our ACT score is now 19.9, up from 19.3 three years ago. Our target is 24 by 2015. We want 75 percent of students above a 21; only 46 percent are now above that mark.
Q: With a range of schools from urban to suburban and even some rural areas in your district, funding has to be a tricky issue. Are you spending more per student in the poorer areas? And if so, how has that been accepted?
A: Spending is something we're looking at very closely. We've studied it: what happens nationally, what happens in our district. People think we spend more on poor kids, because federal money pays for intervention and reading specialists in our Title 1 schools. But we're still spending less in these schools, and the reason is teacher salaries. The richer schools have more senior teachers and they make more money, so we spend more per student there than in other schools. Our question is, How do we equalize funding and use Title 1 to go above and beyond, toward what it's supposed to be?